Heatwave, water scarcity pushing night shelter dwellers to the edge

Hundreds of people start queuing up outside Fatehpuri night shelter near Old Delhi railway station around 6.30 p.m. every day to collect tokens and get a bed for the night, including Sher Singh Rana.

Mr. Rana knows the drill better than anyone else. This temporary structure is where the 62-year-old daily wage labourer has been retiring every night for the past 30 years. He says he has never experienced such a shortage of water at the facility over the past three decades as he is witnessing this summer.

“I have never seen such conditions. There is no drinking water here. We are drinking tap water, the same water that is used to clean toilets here,” Mr. Rana said.

“Many people who could not buy bottled water or control their thirst have fallen ill after drinking this water and are suffering from stomach ache,” he added.

“We requested the caretaker here several times that a water cooler be placed here. But no action has been taken and we don’t know where to go now. There are at least 250-300 eligible voters living in this place but nobody has bothered to check up on us,” Mr. Rana said.

When reached for comment, the Delhi government did not respond.

‘War footing’

On June 3, Urban Development Minister Saurabh Bharadwaj conducted a surprise inspection of the city’s night shelters to check whether people were getting facilities such as water coolers, air coolers, and fans, in view of the heatwave. The Minister asked the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) CEO to inspect all night shelters and address the shortcomings, such the lack of cold potable water, on a “war footing”.

Among the night shelters he inspected was one at Kalkaji, which was well equipped with essentials like cool potable water. However, those staying at other night shelters in the city feel Kalkaji is an exception, not the norm.

‘Unbearable conditions’

Rohit Sharma, 32, who has rashes all over his skin caused by heavy sweating, stays in a night shelter at Civil Lines, which runs from a porta cabin. He says several of his fellow inmates have fallen ill over the past few days because there are only four fans and one air cooler for the 18 people who can stay together in the porta cabin at a time. Given the lack of ventilation and the warm air blowing even at night, Mr. Sharma says, the conditions inside the porta cabin become unbearable.

Back at the DUSIB-run night shelter in Fatehpuri, which is one of the largest in the city, just 16 air coolers are installed for the 500-bed facility. Officials say the night shelter needs at least 12 more coolers.

Laxman Kumar, 58, who has been spending nights at the Fatehpuri facility for the past two years, says the false ceiling is cracked in many places and there aren’t enough fans.

‘No funds’

A caretaker at the facility said they have not received the requisite funds for the maintenance of fans and air coolers. “We often have to get fans and coolers repaired from our salaries,” said the caretaker, who did not wish to be identified.

Another caretaker of a night shelter in central Delhi said the water scarcity is becoming worse with each passing day. “Earlier we were promised two tankers every day, but now we have to make 50 calls before they send even one.

“People are finding it difficult to access water. Many have to go outside the night shelter looking for water. There are children and women who stay here at night because they don’t feel as safe elsewhere. But the conditions are becoming difficult. We don’t know when the crisis will be over,” the caretaker said.

Sanjay Kumar, co-founder of Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan, who runs 14 night shelters across north and south Delhi said most organisations are managing drinking water on their own. “Has the summer action plan been implemented? We don’t know. Summer lasts longer than winter. There are people living at our night shelters who have to wait till 3 a.m. to fall asleep because that’s when the floor cools down somewhat,” he said.

‘Unsanitary state’

Indu Prakash Singh, an activist and member of the State Level Shelter Monitoring Committee (SLSMC), constituted by the Supreme Court in 2018 to work with the DUSIB to oversee the conditions of night shelters, said in most places in the city, porta cabins are used as night shelters.

“People require better spaces and permanent buildings. We have written to DUSIB on issues pertaining to buildings, water, and toilets. Many shelters received coolers in June when they were expected to arrive in March-April. At many shelters, bedding and mattresses also haven’t been washed. These concerns have to be taken up quickly before people start falling sick,” he said.

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